On September 17, 1862, the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland became the scene of the bloodiest single day in American history, resulting in over 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in a twelve-hour period. The Union victory at Antietam enabled President Lincoln on September 22, 1862, to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, "all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” One of the greatest ironies of the Battle of Antietam is that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the 87,000 people who were enslaved in Maryland, including those who lived on the battlefield and in the town of Sharpsburg. Although a slave holding border state, Maryland was not in rebellion against the Union, therefore the Emancipation Proclamation did not free enslaved Marylanders. It would take a new state constitution in 1864 to end slavery in the state.
History of Slavery in Maryland
In 1642, the first known indentured servants of African descent arrived in Maryland. The two men were an African man named Francisco and Mathias de Sousa, a man of mixed African and Portuguese ancestry. The first known purchase of African slaves in Maryland was in 1644 in Saint Mary’s County. Up until the 1690s, most laborers in Maryland were white indentured servants. This changed during the 18th century. Maryland planters began importing more and more enslaved Africans and passed laws legalizing slavery and making it more restrictive. By 1755, thirty percent of the population in Maryland was of African descent. Tobacco was the main crop gown on the larger plantations of the Eastern Shore. These tobacco-growing areas had a much larger enslaved population than Western Maryland, which had smaller farms and grew more diversified (and less labor intensive) products such as wheat, barley, and cattle. This often meant that on the farms in Western Maryland the farmer, his children, hired laborers (both African-American and white) and in some cases, a few enslaved persons worked in the fields together.
In terms of the issue of slavery, Maryland was in a unique geographical position. It was just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, sandwiched between slaveholding Virginia and the free state of Pennsylvania. This location, in some ways, made things more difficult for slaveholders especially in Northern and Western Maryland. They had to walk a fine line; if they were too brutal or too repressive, the Mason-Dixon Line and the possibility of freedom was only a few miles away. On the other hand, runaways had to weigh the personal consequences to themselves if they were captured and the consequences for their families left behind if they successfully made it to freedom. By 1830, the free African American population in Maryland was over 50,000 people. This was the largest number of free blacks in any state in the country. As the free black population increased in Maryland, legislators passed more and more laws to control and limit the rights of African-Americans, both free and enslaved. These laws regulated all aspects of their lives, including who free blacks could marry, whether they could own property or guns, and whether they could vote. In addition, laws prohibited free blacks from attending church without a white minister present. Conversely, mostly because of the decline in the profitability of tobacco farming, the number of enslaved people in Maryland had decreased by 1860.
The federal government did everything it could to prevent the border states from leaving the Union, including not emancipating slaves in these areas. In addition to its close proximity to Washington, DC, Maryland’s roads, railroads, and harbors were critical to the Union Army for moving troops and supplies. In March 1862, President Lincoln sent a message to Congress recommending that the Federal Government should give financial assistance to the states to use at their discretion to compensate “for the inconveniences public and private, produced by such change of system'' for the "gradual abolishment of slavery.” Although it passed both houses in Congress, it was not popular in the border states even among unionists, and especially not with the wealthy Maryland planters who controlled the state both politically and economically. These planters had a vested interest in seeing the institution of slavery continue. Maryland’s loyalty was important because if it left the Union, Washington, DC would be surrounded by enemy territory. In fact, it was Marylander John Merryman who was at the center of the conflict between Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney over Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1861. This suspension allowed President Lincoln to hold suspected Confederate sympathizers indefinitely without having them appear before a judge to ensure their detention was legal. Merryman, a Confederate sympathizer, burnt several bridges to impede the advance of the Union Army. For these actions, he was arrested and held at Fort McHenry. It was also in Maryland, in April 1861, where an angry Baltimore mob attacked Union soldiers from Massachusetts on their way to Washington, DC, killing several soldiers and civilians and wounding many more. The state of Maryland also raised several Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery units during the war.
Annie Davis, a woman enslaved in Maryland, wrote to President Lincoln on August 25, 1864: “Mr. President It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore. my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free. and what I can do. I write to you for advice. please send me word this[?] week. or as soon as possible. and oblidge. Annie Davis.” There is no evidence the president ever received or responded to Annie Davis’s letter, but all enslaved persons in Maryland shared her plight. From the time of the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to the ratification of the Maryland Constitution of 1864, every single enslaved person in Maryland lived in limbo. Would they ever be free? Could their owners still split up and sell their families? Would their owners demand compensation before freedom came?
Slavery in Washington County, Maryland
Sharpsburg, Maryland was almost overwhelming pro-Union: National Park Service Historian, Dean Herrin wrote that: “at least 139 men can be identified from the Sharpsburg district who fought on the Union side, including eight who fought for the USCT [United States Colored Troops]. At least fourteen men fought for the Confederacy.” The total population in Sharpsburg in 1860 was around 1,300. The 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules lists one-hundred fifty enslaved persons and 50 slave owners in Sharpsburg, Maryland. In Washington County, Maryland, 1,435 people were enslaved, 1,677 people were listed as “free blacks,” and 398 people were listed as slave owners. In comparison, the entire population of Washington County, Maryland in 1860 was 31,417. Comparatively, Saint Mary’s County, which is right on the Chesapeake Bay, had a population of 6,549 enslaved persons and 1,866 free African Americans out of a total population of 15, 213 in 1860.
Comparison of Slavery in Washington County, Maryland to St. Mary's County, Maryland and Washington County, Mississippi
Population of the United States and Four States in 1860
Although more Union-leaning than counties on the Eastern Shore, Washington County was still a divided area. Families who lived on what became the battlefield had very different beliefs and attitudes toward the institution of slavery. Henry Piper, whose farm still stands near the Sunken Road, was a staunch Unionist, however he owned several slaves at the time of the battle. Piper’s neighbors, Samuel and Elizabeth Mumma, also had two slaves listed in the 1850 census and one slave by the 1860 census. The Mummas were also pro-Union, but as pacifist German Baptist Brethren (Dunkers), their religion prohibited them from owning slaves. The Brethren Church, at their 1782 annual meeting wrote, “Concerning the unchristian negro slave trade, it has been unanimously considered that it cannot be permitted in any wise by the church, that a member should or could purchase negroes or keep them as slaves.” One of the enslaved persons listed on the 1850 census was a young woman named Lucy Young. In 1856, when she was 28 years old, Samuel freed her. In 1860, the young man, Lloyd Wilson, enslaved on the Mumma Farm was 11 years old. It is possible that the Mummas purchased him with the intention of setting him free on his 21st birthday. There is no evidence to support this specifically for the Mummas, but Dunkers were known to do this. In 1813, the Dunkers wrote:
Another neighbor, Samuel Michael, was strongly pro-Confederate and a Democrat. Writing to his brother David about two months after the battle, he said that the federal troops had taken most of his family’s livestock and that their total losses because of the battle were over $2,000. He said:
I have been arrested frequently by them [Union troops]. They held me once in Williamsport and in Martinsburg nine days. I was marched in the rain one whole day in water four feet deep and had to sleep in my wet clothes until they dried on me. And had to sleep on the floor in mud two or three inches deep... The charges was for helping the Rebels to capture a cannon. All of them was false and forged against me. I have got enough of the Negro War and think a great deal of the North. This you can interpret to suit yourself.The Michael’s home became a temporary hospital after the battle. Samuel’s mother, Nancy and sister, Elizabeth died of typhoid fever in November and October 1862, respectively. He attributed it to disease from the field hospital set up in their parlor.
Many believe that slavery was less brutal in the northern slave states, especially in Western Maryland on the smaller farms. This was (and is) an incorrect assumption. On May 6, 1845, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in New York City. He said, “I can tell you what I have seen with my own eyes, felt on my own person, and know to have occurred in my own neighborhood. I am not from any of those States where the slaves are said to be in their most degraded condition; but from Maryland, where Slavery is said to exist in its mildest form; yet I can stand here and relate atrocities which would make your blood to boil at the statement of them.” In Maryland, as in other slave holding states, families including mothers and their children were separated and sold. In 1859, Sharpsburg resident Jacob Miller wrote to his daughter and son-in-law about a financial dispute he had with a former friend. This resulted in a judgment that forced the sale of Miller’s slaves. Another example is the story of brothers James Pennington and Stephen Pembroke. Born in Maryland, James Pennington escaped the Washington County, MD farm where he was enslaved in 1828. He settled in New York and became a well-known minister, author, and abolitionist. His memoir The Fugitive Blacksmith was published in 1849. In 1854, his brother Stephen Pembroke and Pembroke’s sons, Robert and Jacob, escaped enslavement from the farm of Jacob. H. Grove in Sharpsburg, MD. Using the Underground Railroad, they made their way to Pennington in New York. Within a day, they were recaptured. Stephen Pembroke’s two sons were sold to a lumber merchant in North Carolina, but abolitionists were able to raise enough money to purchase his freedom.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not free two enslaved men, Hilary Watson and Jeremiah (Jerry) Cornelius Summers, living on the Antietam Battlefield. Hilary Watson, enslaved on the farm of John Otto, witnessed the Battle of Antietam. Interestingly, John Otto, like the Mumma family, was a member of the Dunker [Brethren] Church, which prohibited enslaving people. While the Otto family fled before the battle started, Watson stayed behind. Watson recounted what happened while they were gone:
During the period that he was still enslaved on the Otto Farm after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States Army drafted Watson in May 1864. Watson said: "when I was drafted to be a soldier, my boss said, 'Do you want to go?' and I told him, 'No, sir.' So me'n'him went to Frederick and he paid three hundred dollars to keep me out of the army." After he gained his freedom in 1864, Hillary Watson continued to work on the Otto Farm but lived in Sharpsburg with his wife, Christina. He became a trustee of the local Freeman Bureau’s School at Tolson’s Chapel in Sharpsburg.
Jerry Summers was fifteen years old at the time of the battle and was enslaved by the Piper family. Jerry’s mother, Caroline, and his siblings were also slaves on the Piper farm. His father Henson Summers, lived a few miles away, and was enslaved on or near the Antietam Iron Furnace. Caroline and Henson had eight children, at least seven of whom were born before emancipation. The Piper family history states that Caroline and the children lived on the Piper Farm; they would have almost certainly lived in the “slave quarters” on the farm. The 1860 Federal Slave Schedules list seven people enslaved on the Piper Farm, most likely, Caroline Summers and some of her children. The 1860 census also shows a black farmhand named John Jumper living on the Piper Farm. In September 1862, Jerry Summers left with the Piper Family to seek safety before the battle started. In April 1864, United States Colored Troops recruited in Sharpsburg and “enlisted” Summers. In an April 13, 1864, letter to Major General L. Wallace (also the author of Ben Hur), Sharpsburg resident John Miller wrote of the incident:
Henry Piper was able to retrieve Summers because he (Piper) was a loyal Unionist and Jerry was underage. When the new Maryland Constitution freed Jerry Summers, later that year in 1864, he continued to live and work on the Piper Farm as a paid laborer. In fact, after the war Summers testified on Piper’s behalf when Piper sued the federal government for wartime damages to his farm. Fred Cross, a visitor to the battlefield in the 1920’s who photographed Summers, wrote “At Henry Piper’s death Jerry [and Jerry’s wife Susan] was given the use for life of a small cottage and garden plot facing the northerly stretch of the “Bloody Lane”, and here I found him in 1922 and in 1924 …. He died in 1925 aged about 76 or 77 years.”
Freedom Through Service
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free enslaved persons in Maryland or other border states, it did open up one pathway to freedom by enabling African American men to enlist or be drafted into the Union army. In the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln declared, “And I further declare and make known, that such persons [enslaved African Americans] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” African American soldiers served in all-black regiments. Almost always they were commanded by white officers. In February 1864, Congress amended Section 24 of the Enrollment Act of 1863 (also known as the Conscription Act). It stated,
Many slaveholders in Maryland saw the writing on the wall in terms of eventual emancipation and took advantage of the situation by recouping some of the future financial losses of their property through these bounties/payments.
Over 180,000 African-American soldiers and sailors served in the army and navy during the Civil War. During the course of the war, almost 30,000 African American soldiers died from wounds received in battle, from disease, or as a result of infection. African Americans served in the infantry, the artillery, the navy, and in support roles such as ambulance drivers, teamsters, cooks, and laborers. These men served with distinction and bravery, but still faced prejudice. The thought of armed black men enraged many people in the south (and some in northern and border states). Events like the Fort Pillow Massacre and the mass killing of surrendering African American troops by Confederate soldiers at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia made this hatred incredibly clear.
In Sharpsburg, records indicate that eight African American men enlisted in the Union army. At least five of these men were enslaved when they enlisted. One of these enlistees was William Snowden, enslaved by Samuel I. Piper (Henry Piper’s brother). William enlisted in Company K of the 39th United States Colored Infantry in March 1864. William was 5’2” and his occupation was listed as farmer. He was wounded at the Battle of the Crater in July of the same year. Company muster rolls showed him as absent and in the General Hospital at City Point, Virginia though October 1865. He was mustered out in December 1865. Samuel I. Piper received a certificate for Snowden’s enlistment that allowed Piper to receive compensation from the federal government. Other enslaved people escaped to Washington, DC, free states, or the Union Army during the war. The Confiscation Act of 1861 permitted seizure of property, including the slaves of Confederate sympathizers. In 1862, another law was passed that said that escaped slaves could not be returned to their owners by the military. These laws did not apply to slaveholders in border states, so as to not alienate them. Although runaways or “contraband” (escaped slaves) were supposed to be returned in Maryland and other border states, Union officers and soldiers were sometimes reluctant to do so. The “enlistment” of Jerry Summers was one example of this.
Civil War to Civil Rights
While slavery ended officially in Maryland on November 1, 1864, former slaves still had a difficult road ahead of them. After the Civil War and into the 20th century era of Jim Crow, former slaves and free African Americans alike faced discrimination in housing, employment, education, in restaurants, on trains and buses, and in public buildings. In some cases, former owners would try to indenture their former slaves’ children. In November 1864 a freed woman, Jane Kamper, appealed to the Union Army:
African Americans faced obstacles when voting, from poll taxes to literacy tests. They faced violence and hostility in their own communities. Sharpsburg, just like other cities and towns across America, had some residents who could not come to terms with emancipation. A 1905 Poll Book for the Sharpsburg, MD voting district lists both Summers and Watson (along with other African American men in the community) as registered voters. Though we only have a narrow window into their lives, over forty years after the Battle of Antietam, the Maryland Constitution of 1864, and the 13th Amendment, Jerry Summers and Hilary Watson, both enslaved as young men, at least in 1905, were able to vote along with their white neighbors. Although African Americans still face discrimination today, this poll book is tangible evidence that these two men and other African American men in the community had gained some measure of both freedom and the rights of an American citizen as a direct result of the Civil War.
Last updated: September 15, 2023